Sex, yams and cricket
29 December 2019
| New Zealand Herald
AUCKLAND - If the Trobriand Islanders were allowed to take part in the 2019 Cricket World Cup, they would have caused quite a stir, surpassing the razzmatazz of the modern game.
From the boundary at Yalumgwa's cricket ground I'm watching a violent tribal encounter at the crease without the slightest hint of sportsmanship.
"This is the colonials' doing," says Maurice, a tribal elder watching with me.
"When the missionaries came to the Trobriand Islands in the 1890s, the clans were fighting. They thought cricket would curb their aggression. But my ancestors found cricket boring so they added their own touches."
That they did. Batsmen stride to the crease in tight red underpants and war-painted faces, jeered on to the field by 30 opposing fielders with lewd pelvic thrusting and sledging the Aussies would be proud of.
As silly-mid-on loudly blows a whistle attempting to put of the batsman, the bowler steams in and hurls the ball like a baseball pitcher at an opponent swinging his bat like a war club in a 360-degree arc.
It's seemingly bound for a six over the coconut trees but he hasn't reckoned upon fine leg, who despite blowing on a conch-shell, manages to take an absolute belter of a catch one-handed.
The fielders gather to mock the fallen batsman. As the home team crumble to 59 all out (it's hard scoring against so many fielders), the final man is dismissed for a golden duck and reminded his innings was as long as the time it takes him to make love to his wife.
"This isn't even a particularly competitive game," says Maurice. "Sometimes they end in fights."
Cricket, sex, and yams, in no particular order, prove the leitmotifs of a week exploring the Trobriand Islands: one of Papua New Guinea's obscurest outposts.
And just as it is unlikely the islanders will ever be offered the opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, they may yet supply a few contestants for Love Island.
In the 1930s the amorous islanders gained some degree of notoriety among prudish western commentators thanks to a book derogatively titled The Sexual Life of Savages, by the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.
Subsequent commentators depicted the islanders as sex-mad fornicators prone to voyeurism who believed pregnancy occurred via Baloma (ancestral spirits) rather than conventional insemination.
Yet few of these commentators actually set foot on the islands, much like 18th-century French navigator Antoine Bruni d'Entrecasteaux, who named these 28 coral atolls in the Solomon Sea after his lieutenant, Denis de Trobriand, then sailed on by.
I reached Losuia, the only town on the largest island, Kiriwina, by a twice-weekly flight from Port Moresby.
"Our last tourist was 10 weeks ago but four more are coming next month," says Butia Lodge's manager as I check into an en-suite hut with a steeply pointed thatched roof and fascia adorned with motifs resembling Trobriand's iconic yam-barns.
The lodge presents a token display of 21st-century infrastructure on a palm-swathed tropical island lassoed by coralline white sand beaches. There are no public restaurants, virtually no cash economy, nor television, radio or newspapers. Internet is as illusory as Baloma.
The potholed roads remain unmade since American forces briefly frequented here around 1943 to harry the Japanese military advance south. Those same GIs were called dimdims — white men — by hordes of shrieking children who were now overjoyed to see a rare reappearance of another pale devil 70 years later.
Helping make sense of this anthropological treasure trove is Wesley Moman, a thoughtful guide who left the Trobriands two decades previously for Port Moresby, aged 16, to get a better education.
Throughout, his currency to open doors is buai (betel-nut), a Trobriand addiction. When chewed with green mustard pods dipped in lime-powder it forms a teeth-rotting slobber that has created an island-wide dental apocalypse.
It's customary for dimdims to make themselves known to the paramount chief (the chief of village chiefs), so armed with buai we visit Daniel Pulayasi, the septuagenarian leader with five wives, in Omarakana.
His village is angelically medieval. Stilted coconut or pandanus wood huts with dried palm thatch are the hue of tobacco. Pigs roam freely and islanders weave baskets or mats and create paper money from banana-leaves called doba, used during wakes.
Like every village, it has a yam house: a tall beehive-like structure, richly decorated with motifs of squids and kingfishers.
"Men gain strength and prestige through the hard work put into producing yams," says Pulayasi. Chiefs reward the best growers with prizes of pigs or black obsidian rock.
"Yams aren't just about food but social cohesion and power," explains Wesley. "The more wives the chief has, the more in-laws and gardens, so he produces more yams."
Probably the best time to experience the Trobriand yam cult is during the harvest festival called Milimala from June-September, marked by violent cricket, feasts and exuberant dancing by bare-breasted women in red-dyed grass skirts carrying yams to the chief's barn.
"I think Malinowski may have interpreted more from the women's dancing," suggests Wesley.
Ah yes. Malinowski. How to bring up the islanders' sex lives in front of the paramount chief without causing offence? Cue surprise. From under his bed he reveals a plaque dedicated to the "father of modern social anthropology". It marks where Malinowski pitched his tent during his tenure on the islands (1914-17).
"I think there was a language problem when he made his research," says the paramount chief, diplomatically.
"It's true young people are encouraged to have many sexual experiences but Malinowski wrote we have affairs outside of marriage, which is untrue. Such behaviour is considered shameful."
A few days later we drive down Kiriwina's east coast, through hardwood forests interspersed with coconut palms and taro gardens. In the mangroves, stingrays are netted to use as bait to catch inky black crabs.
So many crabs in fact, that I dine at breakfast, lunch and dinner on crabmeat at the island's only homestay near Okaiboma village — little more than a mattress beneath a mosquito net on a golden sandy beach.
On Sunday mornings along this coast, fire-and-brimstone sermons seep out from open-sided Methodist churches. The faithful's attire clings to their skin with sweat.
The first missionary, Mr Fellows from Melbourne, arrived in 1893. Villagers wanted to kill him but upon seeing his spectacles thought he possessed two pairs of eyes, so fled in terror.
Christianity's arrival hasn't entirely blunted a widespread superstitious spiritual belief that heaven exists on Tuma Island in the outer Trobriands. Nor has it doused sexual appetite.
In Kwabula village Paul-Peter has built a bachelor house of the sort described by Malinowski as places where adolescents experiment with many partners.
Paul-Peter thinks he's 16 but looks younger and, barring the early stages of tooth decay, probably has the looks to audition for Love Island.
What's his chat-up line, I wonder?
"If you have lots of buai then girls love you. Don't waste your sweet words, just bring out your buai," Wesley interjects.
But again, taboos exist regulating promiscuity, like making amorous advances in public. This must be done in private. Even worse, eating in public as an unmarried couple is considered truly sinful.
My final two days are in an open boat exploring the outer islands. Departing Kiriwina, we sail between multi-hued corals in the transparent Solomon Sea. The light is so blindingly blue that the sky and sea lack juncture on the horizon.
Two hours away is Tuma: heaven, according to Trobriand spirit-worship, but a real island too. With real virginal beaches and real turquoise lagoons.
Tuma's community greets us on the beach, its toddlers agape. "The last dimdim came here five years ago. They've never seen one," says a bare-chested elder.
The soul enters Tuma through a sacred pool in limestone karst beyond a white sand beach. Yet heaven's portal proves an anticlimax. A rocky pool the size of a football.
"We cannot see Baloma but hear the sounds of weeping and a conch-shell blown by heaven's keeper," says an elder. Who is the keeper, I ask, imagining a tropical St Peter? The elder falls silent.
"He will not repeat his name, it's sacred," Wesley intervenes.
Now my own time on this earthly paradise is up. Back at Losuia's old World War II airstrip, the islanders anticipate the social event of the week, the Port Moresby flight, selling parting gifts of coconuts and teeth-decaying buai.
Before leaving the remotest society I have ever spent time in, the children launch a final chorus of "dimdim" at me. No matter. This dimdim had been hit for six on the original love island.
Article originally published by nzherald.co.nz on 31 July 2019
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